WASHINGTON – Federal agencies have made substantial improvements in easing the visa process for foreign students, but more needs to be done for this country to avert a “dire” drain brain, university officials said Thursday.
University of Maryland President C.D. Mote Jr. said that U.S. universities have lost highly qualified students since the 9/11 attacks led to more stringent standards and a perception abroad that foreign students are not welcome.
In testimony before two subcommittees of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Mote said foreign graduate student applications at College Park fell 37 percent last year and another 5 percent this year. He said that mirrored national application numbers, which fell 28 percent and 5 percent.
Without those students, U.S. universities will lose their competitive edge over those in other countries, Mote said.
“Great universities right now are globally connected,” he said later of Maryland. “You really can’t be a great university if you are just a regional college.”
Federal agency representatives testified that while international students are important, the government has to strike a balance between “secure borders and open doors” for international students.
Victor Cerda, counsel for the Department of Homeland Security, said the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System — a program universities use to ensure students are complying with immigration laws — has helped make the nation safer by requiring that all international students report to about 8,000 certified universities.
Before the system was enacted in 2003, Cerda said a “decentralized, paper-driven process” was used to monitor students in thousands of schools across the country.
While it has worked to increase security, the government has also worked to make the new, more rigorous system less time-consuming for foreign students, said Stephen Edson, the director of the Office of Visa Services for the State Department. Edson said visas for science and technical students, which used to take 72 days to clear, now take just 14 days.
Edson and Cerda said the departments would continue to work to strike a balance between national security and opportunity for foreign students.
But Mote noted that it can still be extremely difficult for international students to get back into this country if they go home on a school break. He cited a graduate student at Maryland who was forced to wait for months to get back into the United States after he went home to Colombia for winter break.
Mote and Lawrence Bell, director of the international education office at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said another problem is that college officials cannot fix errors in the SEVIS computer program, and that help from the feds is notoriously slow.
Mote recommended that each institution in the system have a designated, trained official who can correct errors and report changes in the system.
Though national security is a priority, Mote said the country should not lose sight of the importance of international students.
“We have about 3,800 international students, many of whom become ambassadors for our state overseas and in their countries, and help build connections between these countries and these enterprises around the world and in the state of Maryland,” Mote said.
Keeping out all students for security’s sake would be like stopping traffic accidents by keeping anyone from driving, he said.
“If you don’t let any foreign people in, I guess we won’t have any foreign students be involved in this issue,” Mote said. “I am very much concerned about the risk-analysis on this.”
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